How young urban professionals revived the city, turning it into their
own personal playground (and inspiring a novel or two along the way.
But not mine. No way).
By Jay McInerney
Published Sep 28, 2008
I first remember hearing the Y-word in '83, when I was living in the
East Village, sharing an apartment with my best friend while working
on my first novel and paying the bills as a slush-pile reader at
Random House. I was enjoying a hung-over midday breakfast (we didn't
use the word brunch in the East Village; it was breakfast whenever
you woke up) at Veselka on Second Avenue. My former breakfast spot,
the Binibon, had recently been shuttered, having never recovered
after Jack Henry Abbott stabbed waiter-playwright Richard Adan
outside, on the sidewalk. An ostentatiously besplattered painter I
used to see around the neighborhood was sitting next to me at the
counter, and I heard him mutter, "Fucking yuppies." I looked up to
see a young couple I myself would have characterized as "preppy"
waiting to be seated. They looked as if they were visiting from the
Upper East Sideall chinos and oxford cloth. We were all uniformly
nonconformist in our black jeans and our black Ramones and Television
T-shirts. As a Williams alum, I knew all about preppies even before
they'd gone mainstream with the publication of The Official Preppy
Handbook in 1980. My younger brother, a Deerfield senior, was a
preppy. Many of my classmates were preppies. But this yuppie thing
was new to me.
The term probably first appeared in print in 1983, when columnist Bob
Greene wrote a piece about former Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, who was
hosting "networking" events at Studio 54. Greene quoted a participant
as saying that Rubin had gone from being the leader of the Yippies to
the leader of the yuppies. The neologism stood for Young Urban
Professionals and might have gone down in history as yups if not for
the Rubin connection. The term yuppies suggested a certain
evolutionaryor devolutionarytrajectory from the hippie and the
Yippie. The story had everythingthe double irony of the
revolutionary trickster turned entrepreneurial capitalist cheerleader
and the setting in the glam palace of mindless hedonism, as well as a
zippy catchphrase that actually seemed to describe an instantly
recognizable new minority. Once we had a name for them, we suddenly
realized that they were everywhere, like the pod people of Invasion
of the Body Snatchersespecially here in New York, the urbanest place
of all. We might have even recognized them as us.
Not long after my first actual sighting, I would see the earliest DIE
YUPPIE SCUM graffiti around the neighborhood, an epithet that was
soon vying in popularity with that LES perennial EAT THE RICH. The
vituperative tone with which the Y-word was pronounced on East Fifth
Street was in part a function of rapidly escalating real-estate
prices in the East Village; after decades of relative stability that
had made the area a bastion of Eastern European immigrants and young
bohemians, though, it's easy to forget at this distance that it was
also a war zone where muggings and rapes weren't considered news. The
Hells Angels ruled East Third Street, and after dark you went east of
Second Avenue strictly at your own risk. The cops didn't go there.
East Tenth beyond Avenue A was a narcotics supermarket where preteen
runners scampered in and out of bombed-out tenements. In fact, great
swatches of the city were dirty and crime-ridden. Even the West
Village was pretty gritty by today's standards, and Times Square was
a scene of spectacular squalor. Check out Taxi Driver or The French
Connection if you want to get a sense of what this urban wasteland looked like.
It wasn't just the way the city looked, though. New York was, on the
whole, a much more parochial place back then, much more divided along
ethnic and class lines. Little Italy was still mostly Italian, the
East Village heavily Ukrainian. Wealthy Wasps still clustered on the
Upper East Side, west of Third Avenue, and Harlem, of course, was 99
percent black, and many white people lived in mortal terror of
nodding off on the subway and waking up at 145th Street. The white
middle class was draining away from the city, heroin was epidemic,
and crime rampant. When I first moved here, getting mugged was a rite
of passage. Both of my first two apartments were broken into, and the
1966 Volkswagen my parents bought me for graduation was stolen not
once but twice. This was pre-yuppie Manhattan, a city, dare I say it,
in desperate need of gentrification.
In the latter half of the seventies, it was a semi-serious idea that
the city would be abandoned by the affluent, the young, and the
fleet, left to the poor and the halt and the aged. But sometime after
the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, it became clear that New York
had pulled up its socks and reversed the fiscal, physical, and
psychic dilapidation of the seventies. The stock market began a
steady ascent, which created new jobs on Wall Street. At some point,
the influx of ambitious young strivers started to exceed the exodus,
and while many of them gravitated toward the traditionally bourgeois
neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, others began to reclaim the
housing stock of previously marginal or downright dangerous areas
like upper Amsterdam and Columbus, or to colonize old factory
buildings in nonresidential neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca and
the East Village. When artists did this, it was called homesteading.
When people whose day jobs required them to wear leather shoes
(yuppies) followed the artists, it was called gentrification.
In my old neighborhood, the renovation of a formerly grand,
long-derelict building called the Cristadora, located on the east
side of Tompkins Square Park, was one of the flash points of the war
against gentrification, a.k.a. yuppification. The Cristadora became
the target of protests and riots, with greedy real-estate developers
and their yuppie clients cast in the role of villains. The fact that
Malcolm McLaren and Iggy Pop eventually became residents kind of
muddied the stereotype. Was Iggy a yuppie? McLaren maybe. These were
the ethical and nomenclatural dilemmas we faced, as New York changed
around us and we all started to make more money and buy espresso machines.
The East Village art scene, which started with the opening of Patti
Astor's Fun Gallery in 1981, had really taken off by the end of '83,
the galleries increasingly drawing the kind of well-heeled crowds
that the creators of the scene despised. The yuppies, once they were
identified, incarnated an internal contradiction of the art world
that we now take almost for granted: The bourgeoisie themselves are
the end consumers of all épater la bourgeoisie production. Basquiat
wasn't selling $50,000 canvases to his fellow junkies.
From the beginning, there was a certain subject/object confusion
associated with the yuppie concept, a certain "we have met the enemy
and he is us" self-reflexivity to the phenomenon. Downtown mohawked
squatters aside, it was sometimes hard to find a Manhattanite without
some taint of the new lifestyle. Did gym membership qualify you as a
yuppie? Snorting coke? Eating raw fish? When I heard a movie agent
slinging the term at a group of bankers at the Odeon, I wondered
about pots and kettles.
Nationally, the ground had been prepared by the election of Ronald
Reagan, the former actor with the Colgate smile, and his imperious
wife, Nancy. Mrs. Reagan spent $25,000 on her inauguration wardrobe,
and a planned redecoration of the White House family quarters was to
cost $800,000. Apparently, that was a lot back then, judging by the
breathless tone in which the figure was quoted. The price tag for the
White House china was $209,508, which still seems like a lot. Luxury!
After years of Jimmy Carter empathizing with our malaise and telling
us to lower our expectations and carry our own suitcases, the Reagans
were unself-conscious advocates of the good life. Conspicuous
consumption was good. It was morning in America, according to Reagan,
which seemed to mean that the sixties were finally over.
We didn't know it at the time, but the birth of the new species might
be pegged to the September 22, 1982, debut of Family Ties and the
first appearance of Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton, the
briefcase-toting young Republican. In retrospect, it seems clear that
Keaton was the proto-yuppie. The spawn of hippie parents, born in
Africa while they were working for the Peace Corps, he wears a tie
around the house, worships wealth, business success, and Ronald
Reagan, and aspires to a career on Wall Street. The show ran for
seven seasons, from '82 to '89, and illustrated a strange cultural
inversion whereby a conservative younger generation cast aside the
liberal values of their parents. The creators had envisioned a sitcom
focused on the parents, but the young Republican soon stole the show.
If at first he seemed an anomaly, he soon came to seem like an avatar
of the Zeitgeist.
"Who are all those upwardly mobile folk with designer water, running
shoes, pickled parquet floors, and $450,000 condos in semi-slum
buildings?" asked Time magazine in its January 9, 1984, issue.
"Yuppies," we were informed, "are dedicated to the twin goals of
making piles of money and achieving perfection through physical
fitness and therapy." The Yuppie Handbook, which had just been
published, defined its subject: "(hot new name for Young Urban
Professional): A person of either sex who meets the following
criteria: (1) resides in or near one of the major cities; (2) claims
to be between the ages of 25 and 45; (3) lives on aspirations of
glory, prestige, recognition, fame, social status, power, money, or
any and all combinations of the above; (4) anyone who brunches on the
weekends or works out after work."
Apparently, the creatures anatomized in The Yuppie Handbook were just
common enough to elicit recognition, but not so general as to provoke
a shrug. The concepts of "brunching" and "working out" were
apparently new and humorous. A few of their defining
characteristicsdhurrie rugs, potted ferns, pickled parquet
floorssound suitably dated. But many moreEuropean automobiles,
gourmet kitchens, computer literacy, designer clothing, and
sushifail 25 years later to convey the exoticism that the authors
seem to have intended. Oh, those wacky yuppies, eating raw fish and
going to the gym.
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the yuppie era, not mentioned in the
book, was the Baby Jogger. In a 2003 valedictory to the yuppie, Tom
McGrath lauds "the glistening spoke-wheeled stroller that made its
debut in the eighties. So many elements of yuppiness were present all
at once in the Baby Jogger: quality time with your child, exercise,
and a technologically advanced, ridiculously expensive thing everyone
else could admire."
Like hippies, yuppies were baby-boomers rebelling against their
parents. But the yuppies weren't rejecting their parents' politics so
much as their parents' taste and budgetary constraints. Yuppies
seemed to be apolitical. Urbanity, one of their namesake
characteristics, was a reaction to the suburbs, where many of them
had grown up. Their epicureanism was presumably a reaction to the
canned, frozen, and processed food that most of them had grown up on.
As for their signature ambition, well, BMWs and 5,000-square-foot raw
loft spaces didn't come cheap, even in 1984. But of course there was
more to it than that, even in the cartoon version, since the
self-improvement ethic extended to the physical realm as well. It's
hard to believe now, but there weren't all that many gyms in Manhattan in 1979.
My first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, came out in September 1984,
although it was set a few years earlier, in a grubbier, less
prosperous New York. No one was more surprised than me when The Wall
Street Journal described me as a spokesman for the yuppies. The
protagonist of the novel was a downwardly mobile fact-checker and
aspiring novelist, and unless I'm mistaken, he didn't eat any raw
fish in the novel. His best friend, Tad Allagash, was a likelier
yuppie, an adman with entrée to all the right places, an uptown boy
who knew his way around downtown. And they both did a lot of coke,
a.k.a. Bolivian Marching Powder, which was to become the emblematic
drug of the eighties, what acid had been to the sixties.
For a brief period, coke seemed like the perfect drug for bright,
shiny overachievers. We knew that heroin was hopelessly addictive and
speed killed, but coke seemed harmless. It helped you stay up all
night, and the next day, if you felt a little comedown, it was a far
more effective pick-me-up than a double espresso. Not long before the
first DIE YUPPIE SCUM graffiti appeared, a friend of mine pointed out
an ad in the Village Voice for something called Cocaine Anonymous.
This was a source of great mirth for us. It was as if we'd stumbled
across an ad for Cash Anonymous or Caviar Anonymous. (Back then, the
idea of sex addiction would have sent us into paroxysms of hysteria.)
We simply didn't think it was possible to have too much of this
particular good thing. In part, this was a function of limited
budgets, my friends being in the arts and publishing. We weren't
buying eight-balls. But even those who were thought they had
discovered the secret of perpetual motion. Even when John Belushi
died, in 1982, we could tell ourselves that it was the heroin rather
than the coke in his speedball that had stopped his heart. The decade
would be pretty well advanced before we would notice that it was
possible to have too much of a good thing. For some reason we
imagined, for a while, that there was no payback. All at once, coke
was everywhere: Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Seventh Avenue.
Coke was the perfect metaphor for a culture of runaway consumption,
for a culture based on credit that believed in an endless
postponement of consequences. Cocaine was literally a treadmill;
there was no end point at which fulfillment was reached, where the
exact right number of lines had been consumed. Fulfillment was always
one line away. And eventually many of us learned that what went up
must eventually come down, a lesson that was brought home on October
19, 1987, when the stock market came crashing down after a long and
exhilarating bull run.
A few months after Black Monday, Newsweek declared the yuppie
extinct, and various commentators have been writing obituaries ever
since, the most powerful of which was a novel called American Psycho,
published in 1991 by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis's send-up of the
materialism of the era is exhaustive to the point of feeling almost
definitive. Patrick Bateman is the Über-yuppie whose hobbies just
happen to include torture and murder. His taste is impeccable, and
taste was the hallmark of the species. If someone asks, as my son did
recently, "What is a yuppie?," we need only point to Bateman:
"I worked out heavily at the gym after leaving the office today but
the tension has returned, so I do 90 abdominal crunches, 150
push-ups, and then I run in place for twenty minutes while listening
to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a
new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a
body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream. I debate
between two outfits. One is a wool-crêpe suit by Bill Robinson I
bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an
Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a
cotton shirt and pleated wool trousers by Alexander Julian, with a
polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass."
In Patrick Bateman, Ellis created the grown-up evil twin of Alex
Keaton, a man for whom an Armani suit has more reality than the human
being within it. Mergers and acquisitions? Murders and executions?
Easily confused, as are Patrick's nearly interchangeable friends,
lovers, colleagues, and victims.
As much as the term conjures the eighties, the yuppie has never quite
faded into history. In 2000, David Brooks tried to refine the
concept, coining the term BoBo to describe an allegedly more
enlightened consumer who combined the self-interest of the eighties
with the liberal idealism of an earlier era, using the Y-word to
denote a less enlightened group. In the meantime, the yuppie family
tree has thrown off another branch, the hipster. Hipsters believed
they were the ultimate anti-yuppies. Unlike their forebears, they
wanted to be known not by their job or ambition but by their
self-conscious disregard for either. If anything, the cult of
connoisseurship was even more exaggerated in this subgroup. Their
code, enshrined in Robert Lanham's hyperironic 2003 Hipster Handbook,
was inherently elitist, defining itself in opposition to the
mainstream. Hipster consumerism championed the notions of alternative
and independent, rejecting the yuppie embrace of certain consumer
brands in favor of their own. So it was vintage T-shirts rather than
Turnbull & Asser dress shirts with spread collars, Pabst Blue Ribbon
over Chardonnay. But ultimately, whether you love Starbucks or loathe
it, a world in which we are defined by our choice of blue jeans and
coffee beans owes more to Alex Keaton than to Abbie Hoffman.
And as if to prove that the hipster and the yuppie are brothers under
the skin, borough-bred columnists like Denis Hamill and Jimmy Breslin
still find the yuppie label useful for bashing a certain breed of
interloping effete New Yorker, the kinds of people who may in fact
identify themselves as hipsters.
There probably are a few Budweiser-drinking union members left out in
Brooklyn and Queens who guffaw at the idea of anyone belonging to a
gym or buying coffee at any place other than a deli, but generally
speaking, yuppie culture has become the culture, if not in reality,
then aspirationally. The pods have pretty much taken over the world.
The ideal of connoisseurship, the worship of brand names and designer
labels, the pursuit of physical perfection through exercise and
surgerydo these sound like the quaint habits of an extinct clan?